Yes, XML is still necessary to configure things, but in the future Java will (hopefully) learn from other technologies like Ruby/Rails and configuration will be more intelligent with less XML.
In any case, the advantage of using tools like Spring and a modular persistence API is that the XML parser is always the same (i.e. the parser embedded in these tools), wherever you deploy. This means that you don't get new XML errors after testing, which already improves the situation a lot IMHO. In other words, this protects you from cross-appserver XML parsing problems (which still exist despite validation tools).
Metadata is another approach, but on the other hand most people seem to be working on 1.4 still...